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Beginner Improvising on two (diatonic) chords e.g. Jambalaya

Pete Thomas

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As many of you know I dislike the whole Aebersold concept of assigning a so-called "mode" to each chord of a sequence. e.g. Dm7 = dorian, G7 = mixolydian etc...

So when setting out a course in learning to improvise in a better and more intuitive/musical way I found it really useful to start really simply, and think of tunes that just have two chords,

Chord One I and chord V (7) or tonic and dominant. For now, ignore the 7 - that comes later.

Now then, following on from this post, I want to demonstrate what I mean and how it really is very simple:

So take the two-chord tune Jambalaya in C concert pitch (D on tenor, A on alto). Lets think about a few basic things.

Level 1: Very very simple​


The key is C major so the only scale we need is CDEFGAB. Don't worry about chords for now.

Alto = A major, tenor = D major

Try playing along with the backing track. (1) We just noodle around on the C major (concert pitch) scale. We don't need to think about chords yet (yay!), but (2) - with any luck - your ear will tell you when the chords change from one to the other and your ear may also guide you into playing certain notes of the scale. Many great musicians go through life doing exactly that.

However if you find your ear isn't immediately guiding you like that it's no problem, your noodling will still sound OK and as you do it more and more, (2) will definitely kick in and you are improvising around chord changes without knowing a scrap of theory apart from the C major scale.

Next level: slightly more complex but still easy: learning some chords.​


  • The key is C so the only scale we need is CDEFGAB.
  • There are two chords
  • Chord one (I) is C = C E G.
  • Chord five (V) is G = G B D

How are these chords derived? Well we need to number the notes of the scale. So we need the ability to count up to 7.

First of all learn this:

CDEFGAB
1234567


A very basic chord uses notes 1, 3, and 5.

So looking at the above we see a C chord is made from the C note of the scale and then the 3rd and 5th note above

C D E F G A B C D etc...

Likewise the G chord is based off the note G, plus the 3rd and 5th above it.

C D E F G A B C D

So to understand the notes and sounds of the chords, just play those two chords as arpeggios (ie one note after the other). (NB: In a band, the guitarist or keyboard can play the three notes at once. You can't do that but you can outline the chords by playing them as arpeggios, one after the other.

You are now armed to take a more theoretical approach - and although it is surprisingly simple - this is the process that many many great improvisers do.

So let's put that backing track on and try two things separately, then put them together

Before playing anything, just listen (with or without looking at a chord sheet) and see if you can hear when the chord changes from C to G7 and back to C. What you should aim to listen for is how the C starts and finishes, with a G in the middle. So think of taking a walk. C means you are at home. G means you've gone for a walk, and then go back home to C.

But don't worry yet, because you can count bars, and know from the chord symbols that the chords are 2 bars of C, 4 of G and 2 of C. It is actually easier to think in the melody phrases, so instead of 2 - 4 - 2 it would be :

  1. 2 bars of C and 2 bars of G followed by
  2. 2 bars of G and 2 bars of C

CCG (7)
G (7)
G (7)
G (7)
CC

(again don't worry for now that it says G (7) - that comes in the next stage)

Putting level 2 theory into practice​


All you need to try now is the same as level 1, ie playing around with notes of the C scale, but try emphasis the chord notes. You can do this by repeating them, putting them on strong beats or just simply only play the chord notes.

In fact, it could work best to start off just playing the chord notes. This will basically be the same as playing a bass line. Here is an example (C concert pitch)

Backing track: https://cafesaxophone.com/x-audio/JambaShorter.mp3

A = A C# E
E = E G# B
Jambalaya-alto.jpg

D = D F# A
A = A C# E
Jambalaya-tenor.jpg



Part 2 to come (adding the 7 to G7 and why)
 
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Makes sense. My simplistic approach (apart from blues/pentatonic stuff) is to find out what I can get away with diatonically, and to identify the places in the song that force you away from that scale, eg a few bars from the end of Summertime, when you have to leave the comfort zone momentarily. So I tend to categorise songs according to this - Autumn Leaves being extremely comfortable, and the middle section of Girl from Ipanema being quite the opposite, where I'm actually forced to think about what I'm doing!
 
I'll be very interested to get feedback from people (non-improvisers) on how this works for you. Meanwhile I may put up a couple more chord ("bass line") ideas.
Hi @Pete Thomas mines a little different the songs in the key of G so I have transposed to A ..its the carpenters version I much prefer yours tbf..Original chords were D Gand G7 for the instrumental..I play the whole tune to lyrics at the mo as this helps my timing and rhythm. Am i right in thinking if i play your baseline from the alto on the tenor that would work on the instrumental..i am going to follow the process you have done and will gladly let you know how badly i get on...
 
Hi @Pete Thomas mines a little different the songs in the key of G so I have transposed to A ..its the carpenters version I much prefer yours tbf..Original chords were D Gand G7 for the instrumental..I play the whole tune to lyrics at the mo as this helps my timing and rhythm. Am i right in thinking if i play your baseline from the alto on the tenor that would work on the instrumental..i am going to follow the process you have done and will gladly let you know how badly i get on...
Yes with a backing track in G you can use the alto part (A) on tenor.
 
Thanks, I do feel like I'm banging my head against a brick wall promoting this concept as opposed to the "modal" approach.

Hence I'm very keen to get feedback here.
 
Can't get my head round modes. I knew Dm7 was Dorian. I'll try to remember G7 is myxolidian.
It won't help my improv but it might help win a pub quiz.


Jambalaya is a tune often called at New Orleans nights. A surprisingly difficult tune to play a meaningful solo on, because it's so simple harmonically.
Something I like to try is to extend the chords.
CEGBDFA over C.
GBDFACE over G or G7.
Maj7 9 11 13/6.
All this helps when practicing, but when playing, my head is in the music. Not theory. Enough practice and ear training and your fingers know where to go and not to go...mostly.
 
Now that’s what I’m talking about. Bebop and avant-garde Jambalaya. But seriously, I would avoid upper extensions on a tune like this. Maybe only use as enclosures or passing notes. Keep it simple.
 
Something I like to try is to extend the chords.
CEGBDFA over C.
GBDFACE over G or G7.
Maj7 9 11 13/6.
Keep it simple.
Indeed and especially in this thread which is really aimed at beginner improvisers. I’m also interested in a more complex version so we could start another thread for that
 
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Thanks, I do feel like I'm banging my head against a brick wall promoting this concept as opposed to the "modal" approach.

Hence I'm very keen to get feedback here.
Not at all. I agree that trying to think "modes" just unnecessarily complicates the issue. You're still using the same set of notes for each of these modes (providing that you're staying in the same key), just starting in a different place in the scale. And for me I'm more relaxed and hopefully more musical just "feeling" my way around one scale than thinking "God, it's the dominant. I must use the mixolydian or the jazz police will get me".
 
Thanks, I do feel like I'm banging my head against a brick wall promoting this concept as opposed to the "modal" approach.

Hence I'm very keen to get feedback here.
Don’t be discouraged—when I started learning (just in the last 3 or 4 years), I took lessons from a young music education major who’s a killer jazz player, and this is exactly how he taught me!
 
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I'll be very interested to get feedback from people (non-improvisers) on how this works for you. Meanwhile I may put up a couple more chord ("bass line") ideas.
Well I'm not a non-improvisor (though perhaps that's a matter of opinion), but I used to be one. Chord tones were definitely a much better "way in" for me than scales. And one of the first things I do when learning a new song is to arpeggiate the chords (with or without a backing track) to learn to find my wy through the harmony. And what's more, doing that has actually imprived the lines I come up with when I'm just thinking diatonically (ie just playing in C major in your example) because I have more of a feel for where the song is going.
 

Part 2. Four note chords.​


This is where we get just a tiny but more complex. In the first examples e used three-note chords (AKA triads) which are made up from the notes 1, 3 and five sounding up the scale

Recap:

So looking at the above we see a C chord is made from the C note of the scale and then the 3rd and 5th note above

C D E F G A B C D etc...

Likewise the G chord is based off the note G, plus the 3rd and 5th above it.

C D E F G A B C D

This time we are going to make them four note chords.

Easy I hear you say, we just carry on similarly, so 1 - 3 - 5 and 7.

Well not quite so straightforward because although that works very nicely for the G chord - remember above we said G7 and would explain later, well here it is:

C D E F G A B C D E F

That is your G and this is what happens on chord five

But with the C chord we have an option to either use the 7th note or the 6th. In this case the 6th note works well because it happens to crop up a lot in the melody, so that's what we'll use.

In the bass line here, you can see the extra note as it's in red.

But why the two green notes? I hear you ask.

This is just one more thing to learn for now. We said above you can just improvise over this by using notes from the main scale. But up to now the bass line has just had the chord notes because it's a good idea to get to know the actual chord notes even though in very basic impro you can just think of the one scale.

Well, in this example those notes are not in the chord. But they are in the scale. Simple as that.

If you want the technical term, in this case we call them passing notes because they pass between the chord notes.


A6 = A C# E F#
E7 = E G# B D

j2 alto.jpg



D6 = D F# A B
A7 = A C# E G

j2 tenor.jpg
 
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This is brilliant @Pete Thomas...In key of A carpenters version song in G Alto bass lines are really appropriate..issues I had (aside from understanding the concept) were i didn't have the chords..chordify is great for that..also i normally play the melody so playing the basslines over chords is quite chaotic at full speed..

i found an app that that lets me slow down the instrumental..great help..also I can now cut just the part i want to learn from the track in Audacity and save as a seperate mp3..just got to put it all together..so a heartfelt thanks from me for making the terminology simples
 

Similar threads... or are they? Maybe not but they could be worth reading anyway 😀

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